ETOBICOKE, Ont. -- While most of the hockey world spent Wednesday's energy concentrating on the possible outcomes for Thursday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals series between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes, a hockey drama just as taut and tense is unfolding north of the border, a mere 90 minutes north of Buffalo.
Here, at the Park Plaza Hotel, the NHL Draft Combine is in full swing. The week-long event, hosted by the NHL's Central Scouting Service, has brought 109 of the best and brightest teenage prospects eligible for this year's Entry Draft together in one place so the League's 30 member clubs can take advantage of the opportunity to interview these stars of tomorrow.
The prospects will also undergo a rigorous three-hour physical exam/workout that is administered by the CSS. Each player's results from the physical and the battery of grueling tests will then be passed on to the 30 NHL teams.
"For us, this is like our Stanley Cup Final," said Brandon Pridham, CSB's manager. "This is the culmination of two months of serious planning."
For the attending players, it is somehow even bigger than that. It is their next big step in navigating the perilous route required to fulfill long-cherished dreams of playing in the NHL. In the course of their time at the combine, these players will be poked and prodded -- both mentally and physically -- as NHL teams strive to glean any pertinent information available to help make their draft-day selections at the Entry Draft in Vancouver later this month.
A strong showing in the interview process -- a daunting 20-minute face-to face with team personnel -- could conceivably make a prospect look more attractive than his current ranking. Likewise, a monster showing in the physical testing -- a circuit of punishing exercises designed to test a player's strength and endurance -- could also boost a player's stock. Conversely, a poor showing in either event could cause a player to fall from the ranking already bestowed by CSS in its final report back in March.
Therefore, the prospects are acutely aware of the significance this particular week holds in regards to the future. For that reason, the lobby and hallways of the Park Plaza were a beehive of nervous behavior as the teens congregated to compare notes and chat excitedly.
Jeff Zatkoff, a freshman goalie with the University of Miami, Ohio, arrived Wednesday from his Michigan home to begin his experience at the NHL Draft Combine. The third-ranked North America goalie in the CSS's final rankings, Zatkoff knows that his actions during the next 72 hours will go a long way in determining where he falls in the draft's pecking order. He admits that is a sobering thought, but also acknowledges that he is ready to meet the challenge head-on.
"Just to be able to have this opportunity is exciting," said Zatkoff, as he sprawled on a coach in the hotel's lobby. "To do something you've been dreaming about your whole life and it's finally here. It's just one step toward your dream."
Zatkoff, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Chesterfield, Mich., says he has 16 or 17 teams interested in interviewing him during the course of the next two days. Plus, he will have to undergo the physical exam Saturday morning.
"I should be pretty busy," he says, laughing at the understatement he has just uttered.
But, busy is good. It certainly beats the waiting, which as the Tom Petty song suggests, is the hardest part.
Simon Denis-Papin, ranked No. 61 among the North American skaters, planned to take in Wednesday night's baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox to take his mind off what awaits him in the morning.
At 6-foot-7 and 208 pounds, the freshman defenseman at the University of Maine is a physically imposing 18-year-old. But, he knows his physical gifts will be of little use as the teams interested in him use their 20 minutes of allotted interview time to probe his psychological makeup.
In fact, the interview process has become so important, says Pridham, the CSS manager, that many NHL teams now have a sports psychologist among their retinue of individuals at the interview table.
Yet, Denis-Papin, from Gatineau, Quebec, insists he is not really nervous. Like Zatkoff, he has refused to practice for this task by undergoing the mock-interview process used by some other prospects.
"I see it as a chance to maybe bump up your ranking a little bit by really selling yourself," he says, adding he has already undergone a similar process when he was entertaining thoughts of playing Junior hockey before deciding to sign on with Maine.
Player agent Larry Kelly of Octagon Athlete Representation serves 14 players invited to this NHL Draft Combine. He also sees the interview process as an opportunity for his charges to let NHL management see his players in their best light.
To that end, he has worked extensively with some of his players to prepare them for the litany of inquisitions they must undergo.
"In some cases, we have mock interviews conducted by present scouts and former scouts," Kelly says. "If we have a youngster that is unfamiliar with the language and has never had the opportunity to work with a translator, we give them that opportunity to prepare them."
That's because he wants his players to put their best foot forward and allow these teams to see his clients for the quality individuals Kelly already knows them to be."
"The beauty of hockey is that it is very much centered around character and I think anything we can do help these young men relax and really show their character is a plus," he said. "We want to put them in a position to have them relaxed and let the teams get to know them for who they really are."
Kelly's plan seems to have worked. Ondrej Fiala, who played for Everett in the Western Hockey League this year, was the model of poise as he stood in the lobby late Wednesday afternoon after a strenuous day of interviews. The No. 14 ranked North American skater, who hails from Sternberk, Czech Republic, insisted the day's activities were far from intimidating.
"I've gone through five of these interviews when I was at Everett this year," he says. "Maybe for the guy that hasn't spoken to scouts before, the first (interview) is hard. But, after that, it gets easier. They ask you about your family, injuries, your point totals, who you go along with the other players on your team. Things like that."
Fiala and the rest of the prospects will undergo similar routines for the next three days before the CSS's NHL Draft Combine closes Saturday. Then, all of these players must anxiously wait three weeks for the Entry Draft to arrive and finally give them a read, at least a partial one, on the effectiveness of their performances this week.
"I'll get more and more nervous, I think, as the draft approaches and gets closer," says Danis-Papin. "That's when it will really get hard."